It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born. For the curious, here are links to 2008, 2009 (a bad year), 2010, 2011, 2012 (when we left the blog behind), and 2013. This year, we’re going old school and present to you the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon 2014: Classic Edition! Tribulation Tuesday Dawn of the Dead (1978) Written and Directed by: George A. Romero If Night of the Living Dead created a new world of horror and served as a capstone to the Sixties, George Romero’s return to the world of the living dead would do the same and more to the horror and the Seventies. Dawn of the Dead arrived on the scene in 1978 and quickly became not just a cult phenomenon, but courted mainstream success despite its unrated (read X) release. Without a doubt, Dawn of the Dead is one of the most important films in the horror genre — as well as one of the most important films of the late Seventies — thanks mainly to its willingness to serve up social criticism in blatant terms rather than hiding it in the subtext, and its enthusiastically anything-goes attitude towards filmmaking in general. There’s a freewheeling nature to the entire production that plays out with a low-budget M*A*S*H-era Robert Altman feel where the nihilistic horror is offset with absurd silliness and social criticism. As you probably know, Dawn takes place the day after Night (despite the decade that has passed between installments), and immediately the sense that conservative values and gun-toting rednecks might save the world is dismissed, and at times even ridiculed. The countryside might have things moderately under control, but in the cities, where people are literally living on top of one another, it’s a different story. On television, scientists argue with newsmen about the need to embrace cold logic if we want to survive — and that goes over about as well as one might expect. In Philadelphia, a SWAT team is getting ready to invade a tenement building where the minority residents have been holding on to their dead loved ones rather than turn them over for destruction as mandated by the swiftly enacted martial law. It’s a chaotic night of violence, tear gas, sadness, panic, madness, and murder. From these opening moments of chaos both in the newsroom and the tenement, Romero (who appears briefly as the TV news director) makes it plain that although the dead are walking the earth, it’s the living human beings who are bringing everything crashing down around them. With no middle ground between logic and emotion — science and sentimentality — all right-minded people can do is gather their loved ones and try to escape somewhere isolated and secure. Escape and try to hold off the darkness without going mad. Sometimes you have no option but to run and let everything behind you burn itself out. Our heroes this time out are news station employees Stephen (David Emge) and Francine (Gaylen Ross), along with two SWAT officers on the run, Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree). Running low on fuel in their stolen news helicopter, the crew decides to land on one of those new-fangled indoor shopping malls we’ve heard so much about. Once ensconced there, the question becomes, with everything they could ever need at their disposal, why ever move on from the Monroeville Mall? Why, indeed. After the outright horror of the opening sequence — capped by Peter and Roger determinedly putting bullets in the heads of a group of distracted zombies execution-style — the time at the mall offers a slow easing back on the tension, and a slow easing up on the criticism. The idea of having everything they could desire loses a lot of its appeal when there’s no outside world in which to provide context for those desires. Money is just paper. Caviar is just a spread for crackers. Fur coats are just decoration. Even a concept like marriage is tossed on the fire as meaningless in the post-zombie apocalypse. It’s a stripping away of ideologies that you don’t normally get in American film — particularly in American horror where there’s almost always an undercurrent of conservatism, whether that expresses itself in punishing transgressive teens for sex, reaffirming traditional gender roles, or characterizing outsider cultures as monstrous. Dawn of the Dead rejects all of those genre norms and anarchistically embraces the collapse of Consumer Culture despite having nothing to prop up in its place. You might even go so far as to call Dawn a rallying call against the tyranny of possessions. Even the zombies feel the urge to return to the mall because of instinct; because the church of capitalism was the most important place in their lives. And this stranglehold that property has on Stephen is what ultimately kills him and drives Peter and Francine out in a desperate attempt to find something to believe in and survive for. The strength of these ideas and the immediacy with which Romero is able to present them is part of what makes Dawn such a memorable experience — even a formative experience for many viewers. Although for many, it’s the gore. Dawn was Tom Savini‘s big break. After a tour of duty in Vietnam as a combat cameraman, Savini’s first film work doing special effects make-up was on Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby’s Dead of Night (aka Deathdream) — mentioned earlier in our look at Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things — and on Ormsby’s Deranged (inspired by the life of serial killer Ed Gein). After working next on Romero’s excellent faux-vampire film Martin, Savini received a message from Romero telling him there was a new project in the works and asking him to start thinking of creative ways to kill people. And there are a wide variety of inventive and imaginative gore gags splattered throughout the film, from the memorable exploding head and zombie bites of the initial SWAT raid, to the helicopter scalping a zombie while our heroes refuel, to the countless gunshots to zombie heads, and finally, during the motorcycle gang invasion we get an arm being pulled off, a machete to the head, and a shout-out to Let Sleeping Corpses Lie as biker Sledge (Taso N. Stavrakis) gets his guts ripped out. However, it must be said that although Savini prides himself on his believable and realistic gore effects, the Dawn of the Dead effects are extreme, but often veer to the cartoonish. Savini wasn’t happy with the bright red blood or how the gray zombie make-up appeared on film (where it ranged from green to blue and was often not fully applied), but the ever-enthusiastic and upbeat Romero likened them to comic book colors and kept the cameras rolling. According to interviews with those on-set, Romero was beloved. His approach to the filming was fairly casual so far as the actual setting up of shots went and he was extremely open to the input of everyone involved — to the extent of filming, and ultimately including, a classic pie fight and seltzer water battle between the bikers and the zombies. Moments like these make parts of the film difficult to take seriously, but then again, that’s kind of what Romero was going for. Despite the nihilism inherent in the Dead films, and Romero’s commitment to letting things play out in the worst possible ways in his stories, the actual movie-going experience that he’s trying to invoke is one of exhilaration and enjoyment. By emphasizing the comedy here, he manages to make palatable the idea that humanity is doomed, our institutions are hollow, and our social structures are meaningless in the grand scheme of things. And this time out, we even get a happy ending of sorts; the first in any of these films. Although how happy it is ends up being determined by the fact that we don’t see where Peter and Francine end up. Perhaps they ended up in some bi-racial utopia raising Francine and Stephen’s baby in safety. The swell of the strings on the soundtrack lead us to that sort of upbeat hope, despite the reality of the situation — they have very little fuel and nowhere to go (a point that will be made more explicit when we get to the 2004 remake and its closing credits). Whether we are to believe that their survival was the result of rethinking the impact of the ending, or as Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead suggests, the final gore shots weren’t going to be up to the standards of the rest of the film and Romero didn’t want to go out on a weak gag, the result is the same: a zombie apocalypse film that somehow manages to straddle both sides of the line between nihilism and hope. But when Italian horror auteur and co-producer of Dawn, Dario Argento exercised his contract to recut and oversee European distribution of the film, there was a change. Argento cut much of the humor, chunks of dialogue, and the whimsical score that Romero preferred (to be replaced by Argento’s frequent collaborators Goblin). It’s a tighter film, clocking in at 118 minutes, compared to the 127 minute runtime of the U.S. Theatrical Release (upon which this review is based), and has more of an edge. So much so that it single-handedly kicked off the Italian zombie craze that would inspire the one-two punch of gorehound directors Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi — neither of whom ended up on this year’s EZMM list due to one reason or another. A future all-Italian zombie special is probably warranted. If you’re looking for Dawn of the Dead on Blu-ray, the Starz/Anchor Bay release is solid, even if it only contains the U.S. theatrical release. If you’re a completest like me, I highly recommend the Ultimate Edition DVD featured below. It not only has the U.S. Theatrical Release, but also the Extended Version (with an extra 12 minutes of footage), the European Release, and a fourth disc of special features, including two documentaries about the film — one produced for this release and the other filmed at the time of the original shoot. Sure, the prints aren’t as pristine as the Blu-ray, but until a big Blu-ray set is released that has all of this, the DVDs are my default choice. See larger image Dawn of the Dead (Ultimate Edition) New From: $89.99 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related One Response ABCs of Horror Day 31: Z is for Zombies - Psycho Drive-In March 30, 2015 […] the release of Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and Romero’s first sequel, Dawn of the Dead in 1978 there was a flourishing of films involving the living dead, but only a few that actually […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.